How to develop a sense of belonging

Several years ago I conducted field research in Podgorica, Montenegro on higher education reforms. Among my interviewees were student union representatives from the University of Montenegro. At the end of the interview I asked them about the main activities of the student union over the past year. The students’ faces lit up as they described how almost 100 students had volunteered to shovel snow around the university and other places when the city was snowed in.

A year later I happened to describe this story to a provost at one of the private north-eastern universities in the United States. The provost mentioned that their university was also snowed in and there were not enough seasonal workers to hire for snow removal. So the administration had called on students to help out and offered remuneration. How many signed up? Just one.

What responsibility do students feel towards their universities? How do they relate to their universities? Higher education is for students, of course, first and foremost about self-formation.

Being a student is about gaining knowledge and developing skills, joining a profession, finding a job. It is also about learning to take care of oneself and how to balance competing time commitments. It is about building relationships and developing a unique identity.

Being a student is centred around self development: the present and the projected future self.

Higher education administrators understand these conditions of studentship. At the heart of the higher education enterprise is the question of how universities cater for students’ academic and personal development.

The United States model of student affairs administration, which emphasises the personal and social aspects of studentship alongside the academic ones, is diffusing to other parts of the world, including continental Europe where traditionally universities did not consider student life outside the classroom – except perhaps student housing and cafeterias – as among their responsibilities.

An awareness that academic conditions, such as the quality of teaching and learning, cannot be separated from students’ health and social and economic well-being are beginning to gain ground in institutional strategies.

These changes are more notable in contexts where institutions compete for students and devise marketing strategies around student satisfaction. Measures of student satisfaction drive institutional leaders to consider carefully how to meet student expectations.

Students’ rights charters

The expectations of universities with regard to students and students’ responsibilities to their universities are usually less clearly stated, except in terms of academic responsibilities and discipline. The students’ rights charters in the United Kingdom stand out in their explicit emphasis of students’ university citizenship.

Strictly speaking, students’ university citizenship is more than just student engagement in the university community and showing stewardship of the university environment, facilities and resources. It implies students’ voluntary contribution to make a positive impact on their university and its community beyond their own narrow self-interest, to work for collective benefits or communal interests.

So what is students’ university citizenship? Does it involve shovelling snow, providing input into curriculum planning, voting in student union elections, volunteering as a subject in university research and so on? First, students need to be aware of the real possibilities they have to contribute and have the freedom to do so.

The more difficult question is how to motivate them to contribute beyond their immediate self-interest. Students’ sense of belonging to their universities comes to the fore here.

A sense of belonging – when students have invested in the university, consider it to be a personalised space and perceive affective interpersonal relationships there – has been shown in research as essential for positive student experiences and academic success and, more generally, for a student’s subjective sense of well-being, intellectual achievement, motivation and even health.

Belonging refers to a student’s perceptions of intimate association with the university: to feel a central and important part of the university and a sense of ownership of their university, each of which fulfils their human need for inclusion, acceptance and efficacy. These in turn strengthen students’ sense of responsibility to the university; evoke university citizenship and even expectation of having a voice and being involved.

Higher education officials can intervene in the institutional 'habitus' to create conditions that strengthen a sense of students’ belonging to the university and consequently students’ integration and agency. Such interventions are particularly called for in the case of first-year students, but also for selected groups that might require additional support, such as, for example, first-generation students or international students.


Data from the International Student Barometer by i-graduate reveals that universities globally are doing well in helping international students cultivate a sense of belonging. In 2014-15, 89% of all international postgraduate taught students surveyed globally (out of 78,381 respondents) said they felt part of a committed academic community, as did 86% of all international undergraduate students (out of 100,821).

This corresponds closely to the sense of belonging expressed by domestic students surveyed globally (88% for postgraduate and 87% for undergraduate students). Where there were lower ratings it was from part-time domestic students (83%), which may be explained by the difficulties of balancing the demands of work or family commitments with academic life.

As we – hopefully – shift the focus from student satisfaction to student well-being, students’ sense of belonging will need to be more carefully considered in institutional strategies and monitored with both qualitative and quantitative tools like i-graduate’s.

Students’ sense of belonging is equally central to the notion of students’ university citizenship. From a focus on student engagement as a goal in itself we need to move towards a more nuanced discussion of student agency in critically shaping their interaction with and within the higher education environment and of how these interactions can be extended from self-interested pursuits to also acting for the collective well-being and in the collective interest.

A university is built on strong interdependencies between students and staff and this nurtures a collective spirit and enables collective behaviour. It is when universities embrace expressive individualism and commercial values that students’ sense of citizenship to their university is inhibited. Next time your university is snowed in get students to help out or at least check if they would like to!

Dr Manja Klemencic is a fellow in sociology of higher education at Harvard University, USA. Data used in this article was obtained from the i-graduate Student Barometer and the International Student Barometer.